This is an article from the fall 2019 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
It’s hard to imagine what kind of profound and transformative thoughts you would have access to if you attended all of the first-year performances and programming at the Shed, a new art space in New York’s tony Hudson Yards neighborhood.
The list of events is impressive, and it’s long. The space opened in April with “Soundtrack of America,” a performance directed by film director Steve McQueen celebrating African American music. After that came “Norma Jeane Baker of Troy,” a new dramatic work by former U-M professor Anne Carson. Later still was “Art and Disobedience with Boots Riley,” who directed last summer’s indie film Sorry to Bother You.
The Shed defines itself as a multidisciplinary art and performance space, with a heavy stress on the “multi.” The work there is multimedia, multigenre, multifaceted. One of the Shed’s spring exhibitions is a collaboration between visual artist Gerhard Richter and composers Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt that includes still images, choral singers, animation, and live instrumental music. A Björk concert features the Icelandic artist’s signature extravagant visual effects. Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise, a kung fu musical about twins who discover the power to extend life, opened over the summer.
Alumnus Justin Wong (A.B. ’16), who has worked at the Shed since before it opened, says the space’s meteoric opening and ambitious and intensely collaborative programming differentiate it from other cultural landmarks in the city.
“I grew up coming to these storied art institutions,” says Wong, who was raised on Long Island. “I grew up with the Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center and the Whitney Museum of American Art. You walk into them with this sense of history. You know what they do and you know that they arrived a long, long time ago. The Shed turns all of that on its head. It comes with the same gravitas, but it’s entirely new.”
The dexterity of the Shed’s programming is mirrored in its architecture.
The most visibly striking part of the Shed is its husk — an eight-million-pound shell that can move back and forth based on what’s happening in the space. An architectural and engineering attraction in its own right, the shell moves thanks to six steel “bogies” — basically giant six-foot-tall wheels — powered by six 15-horsepower engines.
The outer shell of the Shed, in New York’s Hudson Yards neighborhood, weighs eight million pounds and moves on six-foot-tall bogie wheels, expanding or contracting based on the needs of the art space. LSA alumnus Justin Wong began working at the Shed the year before it opened, when it was “just a skeleton with no escalator.”
For large events, the shell moves out to create an enclosed space for concerts and performances. On other days, it’s retracted to create a walking and sitting space for pedestrians.
Wong was able to witness the construction of the place from the outside — and inside.
“I started working here in July 2018,” Wong says. “Back then it was just a skeleton with no escalator. Now it’s a real building, and it’s entirely new. I’ve never been a part of anything like it.”
Fuel for Life
Wong had trouble deciding on a major at U-M — a lot of trouble. So much trouble that he switched majors ten times in his first three semesters.
Eventually, though, he landed on a double major, studying history of art and Chinese language. His studies, along with a transformative internship at U-M’s University Musical Society, became an engine that has powered his career since school.
“It’s not necessarily the material. It’s not about sixteenth-century German furniture,” Wong says. “It’s about the amount of detail you have to pay attention to, as far as art history. It’s not just the content of the painting that you’re looking at, it’s all the way down to the type of wood on the frame — all of those details are important. Learning to pay close attention, to think and write critically, those are the only reasons that I can do what I’m doing today.
“And Chinese has opened so many doors,” Wong continues. “Having more than a single way to think about things really makes the world more malleable.”
After school, Wong landed two part-time internships: one at the Ghostly International record label, started by fellow LSA history of art alum Sam Valenti IV (A.B. ’02), and one at the Williamsburg music venue National Sawdust. He eventually was offered a full-time position at National Sawdust, and from there moved to the Shed.
At the Shed, Wong does everything from greeting esteemed guests at the front door to ensuring that performances, fundraising events, and high-level meetings are planned and executed perfectly.
“My team makes sure that the ship keeps running,” Wong says. “Every day and every project is different. I just have to be there and make myself available to get done whatever needs to get done that day.”
Wong says the job challenges him in ways he wasn’t expecting in terms of the kind of work that he ends up doing, the people he ends up connecting with, and the amount of effort it takes to make a home for the Shed’s raft of challenging, complicated art pieces.
“We worked so hard to get ready for the opening, and it felt like we were getting close to the finish line, but really it was the starting line,” Wong says with a laugh. “It’s going to be a big year.”